Monday, March 19, 2012

Research misconduct - a problem in Singapore or not?

It's probably unrealistic to expect that scientists can be less unethical than salesmen or wall street bankers. Historians are by now pretty convinced that some of our most illustrious scientific minds, Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton and even Albert Einstein misconducted themselves in their presentation of critical data. So it should come as no surprise that scientists of today do cheat. Except that because today's research stakes are so high and because biomedical research is nowadays such a big industry, we should expect that, notwithstanding all the goodie-goodie posturing, biomedical scientists do cheat a lot.

An electronic BMJ survey in the UK of 2782 respondents (out of 9036 invitations) revealed that 13% of the respondents had either witnessed or had first hand knowledge of research misconduct. Not only that, but the respondents also felt that about half of these cases had been inadequately investigated.

The recent unveiling of Dr Anil Potti's research dishonesty (see Wikipedia; Economist) show not only how extensive research misconduct can get, but also how large prestigious research establishments are not immune to such dishonesty. (Dr Potti was a reknown Duke University oncologist and researcher). Many felt though, that his case was a long time cooking, perhaps too long, and that this delay reflected
some reluctance in the establishment to press home early allegations.

Another kettle about to boil over involves Dr BA Aggarwal at another prestigious establishment, the  MD Anderson Cancer Center. He is apparently under investigation at the moment. In Singapore, we have the Alirio Melendez story, which has been under investigation for an extremely long time without any apparent outcome.

Is research misconduct a problem in Singapore? It is hard to tell. But there is nothing to indicate that we are any more or less ethical compared to researchers in UK or the US. The absence of any national ombudsman to investigate allegations of misconduct may limit the identification and surfacing of such cases. Blogs such as Abnormal Science and Retraction Watch do occasionally flag out some questionable practices from Singapore (see here), but there is currently no indication that our research establishments are taking any of these seriously. I guess Lord Horatio Nelson rules in Singapore with respect to investigating misconduct in biomedical research.

I should make it very clear that I make a very clear distinction between allegations and proven misconduct. Much of what has been highlighted in blogs such as Abnormal Science are little more than allegations, and even if there are malpractices, it is unclear what actually happened and who is responsible for the 'errors'. Nevertheless research establishments do need to recognize the presence of these allegations in the blogosphere and to deal with them. It is not in anybody's interested to pretend that such allegations do not exist, especially if they are accompanied by documentary evidences of questionable data integrity. We need to have these properly pinned down, and if there is any real misconduct, the research community and particularly the students need to be aware of these pitfalls and wrong doings.

For further reading, please see:
Singapore statement on research integrity
Columbia University portal for Responsible Conduct of Research

Given the amount of money we are pouring into biomedical research in Singapore, it is somewhat surprising that we do not take the policing of research misconduct more seriously. Perhaps it is time we had a national ombudsman for this purpose.


dancingbunny said...

It is quite common in Singapore I should think. 8.5 years in biomedical research, I have heard quite a fair bit of "rumours and stories" about misconduct in the laboratory settings.

Although nobody confirm those "stories", I personally think that there won't be smoke without fire.

Many a time, the direction of where the research should be heading depends very much on the decision of the leading principal investigator or the CEO of the company.

These people are in turn pressurise by the people from the source of funding to give results. If a stipulated benchmark is not meet within, maybe a period of 5 years, the funding will be cut.

This spells the end for the research and the company. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that funny ideas starts creeping up. I am not saying this is the correct excuse for performing something bad. Just that this is how cruel biomedical research is. A lot of my students enter the life science industry thinking that it is a fufuiling and glamourous job. (I don't deny I have the same thought more than a decade ago)

Many years later, they will come to realise that it is actually just all about "washing test tubes" and trying our very best to hook onto fundings so that we can support ourselves. Nobody really care about the ethics and morals involved in manipulating research data. Sad but true. I am glad that after 8.5 years, I made a decision to leave.

gigamole said...

Well, it is certainly much more common than people would care to admit. There seems to be more than a bit of a conspiracy of silence between institutions, investigators, grant givers and journals. Who would want to rock the boat if everything is on a roll? So unless the institutions, grant givers and journals make a clear public stand about this the problem will just keep growing larger. And I mean some concrete action,not just the mouthing of platitudes.

dancingbunny said...


I suppose, the bottomline maybe that, so long as nobody dies, it should be fine.

Anonymous said...

Well, if given the opportunity 90% of the people will cheat (something I learnt eons ago from a fraud management guru). And having observed even the seemingly very upright people fall, I've come to accept that fraud occurs in any trade, including scientific research where survival depends almost solely on grants.

gigamole said...

If we are spending 2% (going up to 3.5%)of our GDP on R&D, we really ought not be so blase about such dishonesties. After all, a less serious offence with respect to our income tax returns would almost immediately evoke a distinct response from the IRAS. Likewise sloppy company financial accounting. Yet we are prepared to overlook these with respect to research activities which have been funded by our tax $$? Our public research institutions eat up $1 billion of tax $$ every year doing biomedical research!

But I am not hopeful that anything serious action will be taken. Not after we have scaled the heights to become the region's most published country in Nature.